Domestic Violence Court: A Primer
Miami-Dade County, Florida is the eighth largest county in the United States, has close to 3,000,000 diverse residents and spans 2,400 square miles including a large unincorporated area and 36 municipalities. The Miami-Dade County Domestic Violence Court (“DVC”) had been in existence for over 25 years and is responsible for serving the needs of the fastest growing and most populated county in Florida.
DVC has a dedicated domestic violence (“DV”) court structure for both civil injunctions and misdemeanor criminal DV cases. Although judges in DVC are appointed and/or elected as County Court judges, by authority of Administrative Order, DVC judges are also cross-designated as Circuit Court judges for purposes of presiding over injunction cases. This unique designation allows 7 full time judges and 6 part-time branch court judges to preside over both misdemeanor criminal and civil county court cases as well as civil circuit court injunction cases.
DVC judges handle both ex parte temporary injunction requests and final hearings on domestic, dating, sexual, stalking and repeat violence injunction cases within specifically designated DV civil dockets.
Intake centers located at courthouses in North Miami-Dade, South Miami-Dade, Hialeah, and Downtown Miami assist Petitioners requesting temporary injunctions with an additional intake center located at the Coordinated Victims Assistance Center south of downtown Miami. All intake centers have multi-lingual staff, forms, and dedicated court clerks. Victim Advocates are also available to assist Petitioners at all stages of the process. DVC judges are on duty to review and rule on any ex parte petitions Monday-Friday from 8 am until 8 pm and an emergency judge is assigned to 24/7 duty for DV injunction cases. The on-duty DV judge electronically receives and rules on the ex parte petitions within 1-2 hours of receipt if possible. Cases set for final hearing are set daily between 9am-5pm exclusively before DVC judges. To ensure comprehensive relief, child support, spousal support, parenting plans and children’s issues are all addressed at the final hearings. If a Petitioner meets their burden (preponderance of evidence standard) at the final hearing, a permanent injunction is entered. Respondents are ordered to complete a Batterers Intervention Program and, as appropriate, mental health assessment and treatment, substance abuse assessment and treatment, a sexual offender program, and parenting classes. All Respondents are ordered to appear for compliance calendars also presided over by DVC judges. If a Respondent is not in compliance, they may be sent to a civil and/or criminal contempt calendar also handled by DVC judges.
Although existing independently, a civil injunction case may be based on the same or related allegations as those included in a criminal DV case. A civil injunction entered by a DVC judge may exist contemporaneously with a criminal stay away order. The dismissal/denial of either an injunction or stay away order has no legal bearing on the entry or existence of the other.
DV CRIMINAL CASES:
The DV criminal court cases are prosecuted by the specialized domestic violence unit at the Miami-Dade County’s State Attorney’s Office. All DV misdemeanor cases are investigated by law enforcement and/or the State Attorney’s office and, if filed, are sent to one of DV criminal court’s three dedicated criminal divisions. DV judges preside over all aspects of DV misdemeanor cases including first appearance hearings. At first appearance and pursuant to all statutory considerations specific to DV cases, release conditions are imposed, including a stay away order from the alleged victim, denial of access to firearms and frequent use of GPS tracking devices as a condition of house arrest. The State Attorney’s office, at their sole discretion and with alleged victim consent, may offer first time DV misdemeanor offenders a Pre-trial Diversion program. This program allows a Defendant to successfully complete all batter’s intervention classes as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment in exchange for the dismissal of the criminal case by the State once successfully completed. All Defendants on probation are required to attend batter’s intervention classes and any other necessary treatment as identified through the assessment process. For all cases where the Defendant is on Pre-trial Diversion or probation, Defendant’s must attend regular judicial review calendars at 30-45 day intervals to monitor their compliance. Although DV civil and criminal cases exist independently, it is not uncommon for a DV criminal plea to include the entry of an agreed civil injunction for an extended period of time after the disposition of the criminal case. For those cases that are not resolved prior to trial, DVC judges will also preside over jury trials in these cases.
DV SPECIALIZED COURTS AND BEST PRACTICES:
DVC has a specialized DV Drug Court and a DV Mental Health Court for all Defendants and Respondents who have been assessed with varying degrees of substance abuse and/or mental health disorders. Defendants found to be in need of either of these programs are required to report to court on a frequent basis, are subjected to random drug testing and are held accountable for completion of intensive drug and/or mental health treatment in addition to the batter’s intervention classes in accordance with nationally recognized best practices.
DVC places great emphasis on adherence to the implementation of all nationally recognized best practices such as: mandated domestic violence training for judges, case managers and staff; early access to advocacy and services, including the development of safety plans for victim and child safety; operating dedicated civil injunction dockets; operating a dedicated misdemeanor court docket; availability of victim advocates at all court hearings; a supervised visitation center located in the courthouse; continual coordination and collaboration with community partners; monthly judges meetings; quarterly judicial assistants meetings; a safe and supervised drop-in childcare facility on site at the courthouse for children; even-handed treatment and procedural justice in the courtroom; strict confidentiality protocols and procedures; leveraging the role of the judge to act as a catalyst for collaboration and leadership; an integrated information system for related-case information identification; evaluation and accountability of court operations; integration of protocols for evaluating dangerousness/high risk cases; lethality review meetings; trainings for bailiffs and court staff to ensure proper security and safety; appointment of volunteer guardians to assist the court in drafting safe parenting plans; no referrals to mediation; strict monitoring of compliance with all DV court orders, expedited enforcement mechanisms and referrals of Respondents with children to evidence based parenting programs.
DVC has a 25 year history of judges, community leaders, court personnel and community partners working collaboratively to ensure due process and minimize interpersonal violence. DVC is recognized nationally a Mentor Court serving as a training model for other domestic violence courts both throughout the United States and internationally.